Moving Forward
May 5, 2021 9:35 AM   Subscribe

I find that I spend a lot of my time reminiscing about the past. I'm aware this is not healthy, and I don't want to do it, but it subconsciously happens, and even seeps into my dreams. What actual things can I do to help my brain stay present and move forward with my life?

I read a question here once asking about the things you wish you did in your 30s, and someone's answer was "I wish I didn't spend my 30s regretting things I didn't do in my 20s." This really resonated with me.

I notice I've been reminiscing a lot about past decisions and "forks" in the road and wondering where the other fork would've led. I am not unhappy about where I am now, but it is a more traditional path and I recently decided to try to have a baby, so I guess in a way I feel like I am closing a chapter of my life. This reminiscing/regretting is not new though. I was a fairly insecure person in my 20s, and I often wish I hadn't let my insecurities take lead. I guess sometimes I wonder about how things would've played out if I got to relive my 20s as the person I am now.

My question is more about what actions I can actually do to not be here. I'm aware it's not healthy to live in the past, and I don't want to be doing it. I'm aware I got to do many things throughout my life that many didn't get to do, and that grass is always greener on the other side. I don't want to be regretful of my past decisions nor do I want to keep thinking about them. I *know* these things, but I can't help how I feel. I have hobbies and friends and I don't hate my job. So what can I DO to move forward with my life?
posted by monologish to Human Relations (11 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
It's a skill you can cultivate to notice when your thoughts are going down a road that doesn't really interest you. I read that a good rule of thumb to not dwell on awkward or unpleasant memories is to give it 7 seconds. Then you just say "OK, thanks" and try to shift to something else. Think of your brain like an older relative who you respect & treat with kindness but who often goes down unpleasant conversation paths. Ok uncle, thanks for your input. What's for lunch. When am I working on my hobby next. What's next on my list for prepping for baby. Eventually this will just happen organically. I used to get very wrapped up in thinking about the past until I started doing this but now when my thoughts drift in that direction it doesn't interest me at all and I don't have to do much to move on. Especially bc in my case well there are no more mysteries back there to discover. It's a done deal. The future is a much more juicy & rich vein of information to mine.
posted by bleep at 9:49 AM on May 5, 2021 [14 favorites]

Oh, this resonates so much with me!

I think you might enjoy reading "The Midnight Library" in which a woman gets to find out what would have happened if she'd made all the other choices, taken the other forks in the road. (CW: Suicide and animal death, surprisingly upbeat and fun despite this). I found it immensely satisfying for my curiosity! And also I still think of that book whenever my mind goes off in a "what if I'd made the other choice" direction so I think it was helpful.

Like you, I'm kind of pissed off at myself for always choosing the safe, cautious, socially well trodden path. I don't regret the choices as such (like, I don't desperately wish I'd applied for that scholarship to spend a semester abroad, and I don't dream of a life abroad. I'm just angry at why I made those choices. Like, I feel like I married out of a smallness of spirit and courage and betrayed myself that way.

I committed to those choices physically. But inside it's like I'm still on the fence. And I've been sitting on it for 20+ years.

And worrying away at those choices makes me feel illogically that I'm still holding the door open for those missed opportunities. If I fully committed to those choices, if I decided that "this is the life I chose, what enjoyable things can I do with it now?" - if I got off that fence...well, I can't do that yet. I'd feel like I'd be killing off the other part of myself, that risk taking, fuck it all person whom I never really gave a chance.

So, you know, I'm working on how to give myself what I need. But mainly what I want to tell you is that for me, worrying away at the past is something I do for a very compelling reason, because it gives me something, and before I've solved that reason the worrying won't go anywhere. The reason is, I do it because it feels like the only way to hold on to an important part of me.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:07 AM on May 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

I’m in a roughly similar life stage and when I start to go down the what-if road, it helps me to remember:
A. How I learned from opportunities I didn’t take or situations where I self-sabotaged. So, I didn’t apply for the thing I wanted to do because I psyched myself out and procrastinated, but I learned from my regret over the missed opportunity. In some cases I’m still working on getting better at the thing and remembering is a good reminder to keep working on it! Some things I’ve just learned to accept about myself and I remind myself that overall, I’m doing pretty well at life despite my foibles.

B. For things that are more of a “what if I’d taken a more wild, less traditional path” I remind myself that the risk-averse person that I am would not have enjoyed like, doing more drugs or going into credit card debt to travel more or whatever. I also remember that having kids, having a steady job and relationship etc. doesn’t mean that adventure in life is impossible, it just looks different.

C. I remember the things I would have missed out on if I took different paths. I love my husband and the city I live in and I would have missed out on those if past-me had made different choices!
posted by MadamM at 10:14 AM on May 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

My dad shared a poem with me that I think about all the time, especially now that he’s passed away: The God Who Loves You. It’s about this feeling, and the bulk of it is full of those reminiscences about what might have been, from the perspective of an omniscient god who knew the “best” path you didn’t take. But then it ends:

Can you sleep at night believing a god like that
Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives
You’re spared by ignorance? [...]
Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him
No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend
No closer than the actual friend you made at college,
The one you haven’t written in months. Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.

It’s not a straightforwardly happy poem but I find it very comforting.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:18 AM on May 5, 2021 [6 favorites]

I just read/bookmarked this last week: Make Peace with your Unlived Life, which offers some good insights.

I'm also a big fan, especially in these transitional times, of having a ritual of some sort to close out those old chapters and thank them for who they made me and welcome in the new stories that are just beginning. That can be just a nice walk in a park, a special meal, a couple hours of journaling and contemplating while a small candle burns down and goes out, meditation/prayer, set a paper boat to sail away in a local body of water, whatever resonates with you.

Some people hate The Power of Now but I found parts of it useful.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:42 AM on May 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Mindfulness meditation very much deals with this. It's about learning to keep your attention in the present rather than straying to past or future, and generally learning to have more control over where your attention goes. The aim is not necessarily to have an iron grip on your attention, which is tricky, but to become more aware of the times your attention goes to places that are unhelpful, and to get better at swiftly, gently, and without harsh judgement on yourself, directing it back towards where it's supposed to be. It's like exercising a muscle, the more you practice during meditation periods, the better you get at it in the rest of life, so that your mind is less likely to stray to unhelpful places generally.

There are lots of recommendations for mindfulness resources on AskMe if you have a search. The Headspace app is one of the most often recommended because it's simple to use and pretty woo-free. If you prefer a book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World is one of the classic recommendations. If you ever get the chance, its worth doing an in-person course (they're usually one evening a week for 8 weeks) because that gives you more opportunity to really develop your understanding of it and share the experience with others.
posted by penguin pie at 11:11 AM on May 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

You can't help how you feel. But you can redirect your thoughts, as bleep pointed out. This type of CBT retraining is immensely helpful for many areas of life.

I'm in my 40s now, and I have lived my life in an extremely unconventional fashion, taken a lot of career-related risks compared to others my age, spent my 30s single and traveling, and never had kids. And I wonder sometimes about what my life would look like if I'd met a better partner earlier in my life and we'd bought a house and I'd somehow radically changed my mind and decided to have kids and all that stuff.

So, just so you know, it works both ways.
posted by ananci at 12:13 PM on May 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

This inspires a bunch of questions for me, loosely organised below:

What about your past is still unresolved?
What haven't you made peace with yet?
What is it that you are visiting?
What is the unmet need here?

How do you want to spend your thirties?
What is day in the life of you like right now?
What do you want it to be like?
What will it take to close the gap?

What about your future are you avoiding?
What's the fear that keeps you stuck in the past (or the present)?
What sort of pace of 'moving forward' feels comfortable to you right now?
What does it mean to get started?
How can you use the desire to move forward to your advantage, where's the leverage?

I don't which of these questions will resonate, if any. But it might be a fruitful exercise to tumble them around in your mind for a while. Notice which ones are easy to answer, which ones you resist. Ask yourself why. Sit with it for a while, and see if anything eases up or becomes clearer. Be patient and kind.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:13 PM on May 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

For me, spending less time on social media and more time doing things has helped. Even if “things” is a walk, going to the gym, having a bath, reading a book, making sure my plants don’t die, unloading the dishwasher, watching a really engrossing show - something where either my tactile senses or my brain are fully engaged prevents me from ruminating as much. These things also positively trigger the rewards centre of my brain as “goal met!” in a way that endlessly scrolling does not.

I used to spend a lot of time spinning my wheels trying to give myself closure for things and work out all the “whys” of past relationships that have crashed and burned and lately, I’ve been finding that it really is sometimes just more freeing to let things go. Being grateful for what I do have while giving the rest permission to fall away.

Wishing the best for you, OP.
posted by oywiththepoodles at 7:41 PM on May 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

Reassure yourself that you always make what you believe are your best decisions, at least at the time. Maybe later on, those decisions could be called mistakes in hindsight, but at the time they seemed right with what you knew then. If those decisions hadn't seemed to be the best courses of action, you wouldn't have made them.

Learn from your mistakes, but don't beat yourself for having made them. You didn't know they would turn out to be mistakes!
posted by Leontine at 9:46 AM on May 6, 2021

The Midnight Library is the perfect suggestion. Beautiful, poignant book. I am often preoccupied with so many regrets and find myself feeling resentful often and like I've been cheated, by myself or others. The book was a true soul soother and helped me to think about things a little differently.
posted by flimflamflop at 2:11 PM on May 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

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